Rasa Travancore, Stoke Newington

In the mood for a little spice, but tired of tandoori? Rasa Travancore offers superb Keralan cuisine - if you can get a table
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's Saturday night, and we're at the front of a queue of impatient people, straining to secure a table at the hottest new restaurant in town. We've booked, and the place only opened three days ago, but it's already packed, with a minimum half-hour wait. The staff shrug unapologetically; what can they do? The lucky few who are already seated just won't leave.

It's Saturday night, and we're at the front of a queue of impatient people, straining to secure a table at the hottest new restaurant in town. We've booked, and the place only opened three days ago, but it's already packed, with a minimum half-hour wait. The staff shrug unapologetically; what can they do? The lucky few who are already seated just won't leave.

The only surprising thing about this scene is that it isn't set in Soho or Notting Hill, and we aren't clamouring for access to the latest Ian Schrager. We're in the homely north London district of Stoke Newington, queuing for an Indian meal.

The hot-pink exterior of the restaurant betrays the secret of its instant popularity - Rasa Travancore is the latest, characteristically-decorated branch of Rasa, the independent group that has put the southern Indian state of Kerala on London's gastronomic map. This branch, the fourth, is just over the road from the original Rasa, a tiny but much-loved establishment which spawned two further versions in the West End. One of them, Rasa Samudra, offers Keralan seafood in addition to the pure vegetarian specialities of the original restaurant, but Rasa Travancore is the first in the Rasa empire to offer meat dishes, and more specifically, the meat dishes of Kerala's small Syrian Christian community.

Rasa's owner, Das Sreedharan, is something of a local hero in Stoke Newington (he dedicated his first book to its residents), which perhaps explains the phlegmatic approach of Travancore's staff to the table shortage. We were left standing in the doorway, with no offer of menus or drinks, for 35 minutes, and when we protested, we were merely told, "Your table is nearly ready," with an airy wave in the direction of a foursome, plainly just about to tuck into their main courses.

By the time these dawdlers had called for their bill, an authentically mutinous mood had engulfed my dinner guests, with Sharon in particular ready to boost Stoke Newington's already impressive murder tally. Her rage was made all the more incongruous by the fact that she had decided to theme-dress as Jemima Khan, in head-to-toe Dosa (the designer label, rather than the pancake).

Travancore's décor strikes a balance between modernist and ethnic, with expensive leather chairs, slate flooring and imported wooden screens, but has apparently been finished in something of a hurry - the pretty silks which cover the walls have been pinned up with drawing pins.

As at other Rasa branches, the meal begins with a basket of crunchy rice flour snacks, variously shaped and spiced, and served with a tray of vibrant home-made pickles. After our draughty wait, we fell on them like a plague of locusts stripping a field. The menu is long, and, with few familiar landmarks, too complex to be absorbed immediately, particularly as many of the dishes come with evocative contextualising descriptions. These range from the plainly informative - a chicken stew is described as a "famous Easter speciality of Syrian Christians in Kerala" - to the plain mystifying; another curry is apparently "a famous recipe from Sebastian's mum", though we're never told who Sebastian is.

But with its mixture of meat, vegetarian and seafood dishes, it's a perfect menu for parties like ours, which included people with different dietary requirements. Anand and Harry wanted meat and lots of it; Sharon, meanwhile, was on a major detox, and became more excited than anyone would believe possible at the prospect of a dish of curried boiled eggs.

Of the five starters we sampled, the meat-based were more interesting than the vegetarian. Particularly unusual were the Travancore kozhukkatta - domes of steamed rice akin to Chinese glutinous rice balls, filled with a fragrant, ground-lamb mixture whose spicing was pleasingly reminiscent of haggis. Lamb puffs, too, were like nothing we'd ever had in an Indian restaurant - a puff pastry sleeve encircling a filling of hot, spiced lamb, like an exotic sausage roll, though as Anand said, there was rather too much puff, and not enough lamb. The three vegetarian starters - crunchy potato wedges, aubergine slices and quartered boiled eggs - were all fried in the same batter, flavoured with coriander leaves, which made them slightly interchangeable.

There was much more variety in our main-course selections, the most adventurous of which was a whole crab, stir-fried with shallots and spiced with cracked black pepper. Two characteristic Syrian Christian meat dishes were satisfying without tasting very out of the ordinary. Nadan kozhy curry featured boned chicken in an aromatic coconut-and-chilli gravy; stir-fried lamb, apparently a popular Keralan bar snack, had been subjected to a two-stage cooking process, first in turmeric water, then fried to a dry but succulent finish, and smothered in the same slightly dusty pepper and spice mix as the crab.

Most vivid, in terms of colouring as well as flavour, was the vegetarian Beet bhindi pachadi, an unusual combination of grated beetroot and sliced okra cooked in coconut and yoghurt, to create a combination both fiery and strangely palliative.

Rice, lovingly fashioned into gorgeous-looking mounds, comes in several varieties - we tried a sour-sweet version flavoured with tamarind juice, nuts and chillies, and a delicate yellow blend of steamed rice, chicken, cashews and lemon, both excellent. Soft and buttery parathas completed the line-up.

By this stage we were developing a new sympathy with the table-hogs who had preceded us - after a banquet of such clean and distinct tastes and textures, we were reluctant to leave without sampling the pudding menu.

Predictably, the restaurant offers a range far beyond the usual kulfis and ice creams, encompassing a traditional temple sweet called panchamritham, a syrupy amal-gam of fresh fruits and honey, and kesari, a light, halva-like confection which reminded Sharon of mango-flavoured polenta.

Including service and several giant bottles of Cobra beer, our meal came to £30 a head. It's a testament to Travancore's convivial atmosphere and fine cooking that, despite a humbling start, our evening turned into a princely success.

Rasa Travancore, 56 Stoke Newington Church St, London N16 (020-7249 1340). 6-11pm 7 days. All cards. Disabled access. No smoking

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